TORONTO — Wednesday night, as the Toronto Raptors were meandering through a lethargic start to their evening — which tends to happen during early season midweek games against not-great teams — Chris Boucher turned to Terence Davis on the bench and issued a challenge.
“He was like, ‘You know, when we get in, we’ve got to go up. We’ve got to try to pick the energy up,’” Davis remembered, soaking his feet in an ice tub after the game. “If you bring energy, then the game just takes care of itself.”
That seems to be the case, particularly for Toronto’s tireless trio of Davis, Boucher and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, which contributed a pair of inspired shifts in the Raptors’ 113-97 floor-wiping of the Orlando Magic on Wednesday. Davis scored a career-high 19, while Boucher had 14 with 11 assists. Both finished plus-22 while Hollis-Jefferson put up a plus-21. No other Raptor was better than plus-8.
“All three of those guys, I think, are energy guys,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “That was a heck of a stint for those guys. Or two stints.”
It’s not the first time. Since Nurse was forced into giving the trio more minutes in the wake of long-term injuries to Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka — and a short-term loss of OG Anunoby — he’s discovered he has a bench rich with piss-and-vinegar types itching to impact games. Not that long ago, Nurse was lamenting a lack of attention to defensive detail from his reserves. Now, it’s hard to imagine Davis, Boucher and Hollis-Jefferson not continuing to play consequential roles once Lowry and Ibaka are back in uniform.
“Getting the time with those guys, getting reps in at practice and just knowledge from them and gaining their trust as a rookie — it takes time, and I think we’re starting to get there,” Davis said. “We’ve been playing together for a few games now and it’s really just bringing energy and taking what the defence gives us.”
Davis scored six points in his first 60 seconds Wednesday, the first a quick-trigger catch-and-shoot three off a feed from Marc Gasol and the next a deep pull-up on the other side of a screen set by Hollis-Jefferson. The undrafted rookie’s shown a lot in his first handful of NBA games, but what’s perhaps most impressive is that complete lack of hesitation to shoot his shot.
Remember the processes players like Norman Powell, OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam went through as they got comfortable taking their opportunities to shoot? A moment of indecision as they considered whether it’s the right play; an unnecessary pump fake; a look to their right and left to confirm they’re truly as open as they feel. Davis has arrived programmed to forego all that, simply vaulting up and firing whenever the ball finds him in space beyond the arc.
“That’s two games in a row where the guy’s checked in and just started nailing threes. Just right off the bench,” Nurse said. “It gave our offence a big boost. And the momentum changes, I think, in both games. Not sure I expected him to do that.”
While his playing time was inconsistent when the Raptors were at full strength, it’s increasingly difficult to imagine Davis not playing a bigger role once Lowry is back from injury. The Raptors clearly lacked a third combo guard option earlier in the season as Lowry and Fred VanVleet both started, finished and racked up unsustainable minutes. And while Nurse is prone to zagging where others zig, it seems like an easy decision to use Davis to help spell his two primary guards going forward.
“I think he’s catching teams off guard a little bit. He’ll probably start hitting the scouting reports a little harder,” Nurse said. “But he’s been great the last couple games. And we’ll hopefully keep getting him a bunch of minutes so he can gain some experience and keep on going.”
Hollis-Jefferson’s increased role — he didn’t play in seven of Toronto’s first eight games — should be fairly safe as well. His defensive presence has been exceptional, particularly in challenging matchups against Kawhi Leonard, CJ McCollum, Luka Doncic and, on Wednesday, Terrence Ross.
Ross missed all three of the attempts he took Wednesday on possessions in which Hollis-Jefferson was his primary defender. And the Magic were outscored by more than 20 over the 27 minutes Hollis-Jefferson spent on the floor. While he’s not a particularly potent offensive weapon and may be Toronto’s only rotation player without a three-point shot, Hollis-Jefferson’s ability to impact the game without the ball in his hands has proved critical for a team that values defensive utility over everything.
“He’s really been a big asset,” Nurse said. “Just his intensity, strength, and foot speed have been great. He’s that extra possession getter. He’s keeping balls alive, like, big time. I think those are big momentum plays. And we haven’t had a lot of those this year. So, it’s good to see us get some of those.”
Then there’s Boucher, who’s been less consistent than the other two, but no less effective when playing his best. Recently, Nurse noticed Boucher playing with less than his normal level of exertion during a game and grabbed him on the bench to tell him to stop thinking so much and just follow his instincts.
Evidently, the message was received. Wednesday, Boucher found his way to a big block of Al-Farouq Aminu in the paint within a couple minutes of checking in, then raced up the floor, grabbed a missed Davis layup off the backboard and threw down a loud put-back. There were several moments like that against the Magic when Boucher simply outhustled an opponent to come down with one of his six offensive rebounds.
“(Nurse) told me, like, I wasn’t focused enough on rebounding,” Boucher said. “I’ve got to be rebounding, blocking shots and protecting the paint. I think when I get my mind into that, I figure out ways to use my speed and to get to certain points where I think the ball is going to be.”
Nurse says that energy has left a bigger impression on him than any other part of Boucher’s game — particularly on the practice court where his compete level has been similar to what he’s demonstrated during games. The Raptors don’t necessarily need the 26-year-old to score much, but they do need him to get involved in the paint, whether he’s protecting his own rim or finding putbacks and boards on the offensive end. And to make that kind of impact, a high motor is a prerequisite.
“When Chris is amped up, and he’s been pretty amped up most nights, he’s at the rim blocking a few shots and grabbing a few big rebounds, and getting offensive tip-ins,” Nurse said. “I think the key is that you go consistently — no matter where you are. You see a shot going up, you just take off flying. And say you go in there nine times in a row — you’re going to probably tip a couple in. Because he’s flying hard, he’s got length, and he’s got speed to use to get up in the air.”
It’ll be interesting to see what role Boucher plays once the Raptors are back to full strength. There’s a chance Ibaka returns as soon as Saturday when the Raptors play the Hawks in Atlanta. And if he’s not ready by that point, he’ll almost certainly be good to go the following week when the Raptors host the Philadelphia 76ers and New York Knicks back at home.
Nurse has played around with a couple lineups featuring both Marc Gasol and Boucher throughout this season with mixed results. They’ve played to a minus-6.7 net rating in 31 minutes spread across six games. Meanwhile, pairing Boucher with Ibaka has provided more success, as the Raptors posted an 18.4 net rating over 21 minutes from the duo earlier this season. But those samples are extremely small and probably don’t tell us much.
Still, Boucher deserves to see more time on the floor going forward if he’s going to play like he has been lately. Davis and Hollis-Jefferson, too. It wasn’t that long ago that we were talking about how the Raptors didn’t have enough depth behind the seven-man rotation they rolled with through the first several games of the season. Now, as the Raptors near a return to full health, Nurse may have too many viable options and not enough minutes.
“It helps a lot having those guys come in and giving the energy that they have. With zero fear. Just going out there and doing everything they can to help us,” Siakam said. “Those guys, they’ve always had that mentality. We’ve got some dogs.”